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Ghost in the Shell: Movie Review

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When I think of ghost stories, a futuristic techno-nightmare version of Japan isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe it should. Ghost in the Shell paints a haunting picture of a world in which the line between human and machine is blurry, we’re talking three-martini lunch blurry. As yet another Hollywood reboot of sorts, this movie is no doubt eagerly and anxiously anticipated by ardent fans of the franchise. This live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson boasts incredible visuals that set a ominous tone, rich with horrible beauty. Amid acrobatic fighting and shootouts, this movie finds time to ask questions about what it means to be human, to be alive.

Ghost in the Shell began as a manga series in Japan before gaining widespread popularity in the U.S. with the 1995 animated feature-length film of the same name. This live-action entry into the franchise follows a government team of technologically enhanced intelligence operatives working to catch a dangerous hacker. In 2017 terms, hacking may be a source of oblique concern, but within the context of this movie, hacking is a potent existential threat. In this fictionalized future, technological body enhancements are commonplace. Johansson plays the hyper-capable Major, a one-of-a-kind cyborg comprised of a human brain within an entirely artificial body. With Major (Johansson) on one extreme and more mundane techno-upgrades on the other, Ghost in the Shell is primed for exploring fascinating questions about humanity. Sadly, its answers don’t always satisfy.

Amid the glut of CGI-heavy movies in recent years, it’s more difficult than ever for a movie dependent on visual effects to stand out. This is where Ghost in the Shell truly excels. Surprisingly, it’s not action sequences that benefit most from outstanding CGI. The city that surrounds this film’s characters speaks volumes about the state of their world. Soulless high-rise buildings contrast with huge holographic advertisements that might be beautiful if not for their intrusive prevalence and for reminding the poor what they cannot have. The visuals do lifting often handled by clunky exposition in the script. That the nature of this world remains implicit is a rare and welcome instance of Hollywood trusting audience intelligence.

As a beloved Japanese franchise, casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead led to predictable complaints of whitewash. As a big-budget movie with the potential to become a film franchise for years to come, I understand why the studio cast a big star. I’m not saying I agree, but I understand. Hollywood is a business and the powers that be are risk averse. Diverse casting doesn’t automatically increase Paramount’s profits. Elevating the profile of the people Hollywood marginalizes takes a backseat to making money. With her work in Marvel movies and this film, Johansson has proven she’s more than capable of playing strong female action roles. It’s just unfortunate that studios still insist on entrusting their high-risk, high-reward movies only to white stars.

This interpretation of Ghost in the Shell is unmistakably Hollywood, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. While it may have been necessary, considering how expensive the movie was, it’s easy to dismiss the exploration of human existence at the heart of the 1995 original. Whereas the 1995 classic played like an inquiry into humanity, dressed up as an action story, this iteration plays like an action story with just a thin veneer of profundity. It’s hard to walk away from this movie not feeling like it’s been diluted from the original’s philosophical commentary. What this movie lacks in intellectual punch, it makes up for with action and spectacle. That’s a trade I’m usually inclined to make, but it’s harder when I’m already familiar with the story.

This is a tricky movie to pull off. Marvel has thrived in recent years with a blend of fan service and popular appeal. Sins against canon are mostly forgiven. Ghost in the Shell had to incorporate high-minded ideas and iconic elements from the original, all while updating the technology enough to render as futuristic and scary to 2017 audiences. Anything short of perfection was likely to disappoint someone. That’s the problem with reboots. Too often, they’re a referendum for fans to decide how well the studio understands the franchise and its essential appeal. The absurdity of fans defining appeal in narrow terms is matched by Hollywood’s tendency to make films meant to attract the broadest appeal possible.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Director:  Rupert Sanders
Studio:  Paramount
Genre:  Action, Sci-Fi
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  March 31st, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown
Jason MBrown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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